Taking gym steroids can affect your learning and memory

What was I lifting again? Weights by Shutterstock

Although much is known about the physical and psychiatric effects of anabolic steroid abuse, very little is known about their putative impact upon learning and memory. In a new study published in The Open Psychiatry Journal, we wanted to find out if users reported any difference from using Anabolic-androgenic steroids, or AAS. Our findings suggest that the drug can affect recollection in long-term users.

Anabolic-androgenic steroids are synthetic compounds which resemble testosterone and promote lean body mass and muscle growth. Since the mid-twentieth century, they have been used by elite athletes and bodybuilders to trim body fat and increase muscle size in order to gain the edge over their rivals. But they are have now become much more widespread within non-competitive recreational sports circles and are also often prescribed for medical conditions such as delayed puberty and for muscle-wasting diseases such as AIDS and cancer.

AAS are typically taken orally or injected directly into the muscles. Doses can be as high as 100 times greater than those normally prescribed medically. In some specialist gym user groups – such as bodybuilders and weightlifters – as many as 38% may take AAS. The abuse of AAS brings with it a range of potential physical side effects, including skin lesions, oedema (where an excess of watery fluid collects in the body cavities or tissues), kidney and liver damage, heart problems, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. A number of psychiatric effects have also been reported, from mild irritation and agitation, depression, and increased aggression and violence – so-called “roid rage” – towards others. The types and degree of problems experienced may differ depending upon what types of steroids are being abused, their pattern of abuse, the amount taken and the length of abuse.

Mind as well as body

In the first study of its kind in 2013, psychiatrist Harrison Pope and colleagues discovered that long-term AAS users performed significantly worse on visuospatial memory task where they had to remember a collection a visual patterns that they were previously shown, compared with non-users. Pope explained the real-world implications by stating that problems in visuospatial memory might correspond to problems with finding a specific location, such as someone’s address or the location of a specific room in a building.

Prospective memory. Note by Shutterstock

For our study we examined whether the long-term use of AAS within a sporting context might affect everyday memory. We assessed almost 100 male regular gym users aged 18-30 in an online survey; half of whom used AAS and half of whom did not. As a relatively young group in our study, the participants reported using AAS regularly for an average of about four years (up to eight years) with doses. Each participant completed three memory-related questionnaires. The first measured retrospective memory – the recall of past memories or previous facts, for example the name of your favourite soap star. A second measured prospective memory – the process of carry out a planned activity at future point in time, for example remembering to post a birthday card or to take an important medication on time. Finally, a third questionnaire measured executive function – processes that help an individual pay attention, coordinate information and plan and execute tasks.

Significant failures in any or all of these domains could compromise everyday functioning. Our findings revealed that AAS users reported 28% more forgetting in terms of retrospective memory, 39% more forgetting in terms of prospective memory and reported 32% more problems in their executive function. The findings suggest that use of AAS has a significant detrimental impact on an individual’s everyday memory and ability to remember.

Such deficits could affect many spheres of life, including interpersonal, occupational, educational and health-related aspects, given the ubiquitous nature of everyday remembering. Of course, these findings need further verification before any firm conclusions can be reached given that self-reports can be subject to a range of biases, for example some people may think their memory is poor and respond accordingly, while some think it is better than perhaps it is. The next step would be to look at more objective measures and to show why the use of AAS affects memory and learning and what impact steroid abuse has on the brain and its cognitive functions.